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La Salle vs UE Game Reaction: Let The Reign Begin

Arnold Van Opstal pivoting his way into dominance in the paint, and catching the ball in midair off a desperation shot for a 3-point lead with half a minute remaining. Jeron Teng and Almond Vosotros holding steady in the clutch for the insurance baskets. Thomas Torres providing the outside offense, going 3-5 from the field and 2-4 from beyond the arc. Yutien Andrada back to form, gut, hustle and all. And an array of promising rookies eager to show their wares.

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting your 2014 De La Salle Green Archers.

It was a healthy mix of more of the same and a sprinkling of a whole lot of new as the Green Archers hit their stride early, withstood a UE run in the third quarter that had the Red Warriors threatening to pull away, and displayed their now-trademark championship poise and composure in the final quarter to come away with a 69-62 to open this year’s Filoil Flying V tournament.

With Van Opstal, Teng, Vosotros, Thomas Torres and Andrada to start the game, La Salle started out slow in the first five minutes of the game, leaving unfamiliar and possibly yet unscouted UE shooters such as Pedrito Galanza and Mark Olayon open for shots. But after a timeout and being instructed by Coach Sauler to go strong inside, the Green Archers started to display old form by spreading the floor with disciplined spacing, establishing the post, and subsequently allowing a balanced inside-outside offense to get going, resulting in an oh so familiar 10-0 run.

Right from the start, several things bode good tidings for Coach Sauler and his boys. Even if the offense took a while to get warmed up, the aggressiveness and energy on defense clearly showed that the prospect of “rust” had no room to rear its head. Well into the second quarter, I had already lost count of how many shot clock violations were forced on the Red Warriors, as defensive rotations off screens, and help in the post and to cover shooters left open were quick and spry. This early, the addition of defensive coach Freddie Abuda is reaping benefits.

The energy from Yutien Andrada likewise clearly pleased the team supporters in attendance, as he showed his usual footwork and energy that leads to productivity that transcends the statistical categories. There isn’t enough said about the conditioning of the team, not only for Andrada’s recovery but also for how the team never looks gassed out despite playing with so much energy in already countless fast-paced games. Due credit must go to Marlon Celis, the team’s conditioning coach for this.

The thing that will likely provide the biggest assurance to the Lasallian community is another intangible: the hunger to win. Be it the desire, the mental toughness, the proper motivation, or all of the above, one could clearly see from the entire team’s body language and demeanor that the hunger for wins and a title run in this tournament bears equal weight to—or maybe even takes precedence over—experimenting with new rotations, discovering the potential of all the new talent, and introducing new offensive and defensive patterns.

If there is one image from Saturday’s game that encapsulates this, it was Arnold Van Opstal trotting downcourt with a smirk on his face, apparently saying “Okay, now we’ve all come to play” after UE’s Mustapha Arafat scored on him with a strong drive to the basket, cocking the ball in midair, pulling off a basket that would definitely make any highlight reel. And after the final buzzer, with a key basket and defensive play to help seal the win, the same smirk was there as he raised his right fist to sing our alma mater hymn.

In a conversation with Almond Vosotros after one of the team’s practices about a month before this tournament started, he expressed a bit of caution when speaking of the slew of newcomers in the roster. Obviously full of talent, Vosotros revealed the patience of Coach Sauler in fully realizing and nourishing the potentials of his first year players. Giving ample time for varied lineups on the floor to prove what they can do in tune up games that resulted in blowout losses, Coach Sauler remained unfazed. That deep, quiet confidence can only infect his players in the best way possible.

Looking back on how relievers were used and on the minutes given to the newcomers, it’s very evident that the jury is out on the final lineup that will be fielded in season 77 of the UAAP. Prince Rivero was given a lot of minutes and made an impression after showing flashes of brilliance offensively in the paint and with his tougness and ball handling. Terrence Mustre, though still lacking in confidence and familiarity in running the offense, displayed energy and aggressiveness. While patience must be added to the hype surrounding highly- touted Jahal Tratter and Julian Sargent, as they were given only limited minutes all in the first half, high cards that will be thrown on the table at the appropriate time it seems.

It was obvious that the level of play slightly wanes when different lineups were fielded in as the game progressed; the communication on offense and defense, along with familiarity and comfort level, aren’t all quite there. Yet. This is when Roi Sumang decided to take over the game and challenge La Salle’s interior defense, giving UE the lead for a healthy stretch in the second half. But all it took was a timeout from Coach Sauler, emphatically reminding his boys to crash the boards more aggressively and swing the ball to find the open man. All resulting in the Green Archers regaining control of the pace of the game, and an open 3-point shot by Matt Salem for a 56-53 lead with 6 minutes left in the game.

New rotations, new offensive sets, new talent, new faces. With a win at the end of the day just the same. As final substitutions were made in the final 3 minutes of the game to bring back the La Salle starting five, I was reminded of something Coach Sauler disclosed during the team dinner right after being crowned national champions in the PCCL four months ago. Strangely, it was that he once wanted to become a stage singer and actor, even rendering a few lines from “One Song Glory,” the same song he used to audition for a local production of Rent.

This is a man who knows and understands that each time he takes the floor, each time he oversees all the practices and preparations, it all becomes more than just basketball. And not only is he out to leave a legacy for the Lasallian faithful, but also impart life lessons to his players in conducting themselves on and off the court. As Vosotros revealed in that interview, part of Coach Sauler’s motivation this year was to remind his team that last year’s incredible run to capture the UAAP title is over, along with all the celebration, media appearances and whatnot.

It won’t be an easy road; because if it was, then maybe what you’re fighting for isn’t worth it. And for a team that has now only lost twice in its last 18 games in tournament play, the hunger and drive haven’t wavered at all.

Every other team will be out to notch a big win under its belt against this powerhouse La Salle team, as evidenced by UE Coach Derrick Pumaren’s plea to his own boys in a late game huddle. A win against La Salle goes a long way for any other team’s morale, whether it’s in the middle of rebuilding its program or trying to recapture old glory. But this is a La Salle team with still a lot of motivation, a lot to prove to themselves, and a whole lot of pride. Headed by a coach that fully understands why excellence can never be compromised.

And so another college basketball season begins, with titles to be defended, a new set of goals to be met, new struggles to be overcome. Juno Sauler’s personal One Song Glory resumes its beat, cards held close to the chest. With an extra deck or two in his pockets.

And from where I’m standing, once again observing a man fully aware of the privilege the entire team has been given to represent our alma mater and the entire community– who places a premium on molding character rather than stroking egos, playing with the purest of intentions rather than aiming for the hype, and instilling values rather than blind pursuit of the prize– those pockets run long and deep.